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The Samurai ()

We preach Christ crucified.
-Paul, Corinthians 1:23

Here's one you won't find every day: a historical novel, set 400 years ago, that's also semi-autobiographical. Shusaku Endo was one of the great Japanese novelists, known for his Christian-themed fictions. This is his account of the fact-based story of Hasekura Rokuemon (1571-1622), a relatively low-ranking samurai who was sent as the chief trade and diplomatic envoy of Japan's ruler, Tokugawa Ieyasu, on a trip to Mexico (New Spain), Spain, and eventually to Rome. He and his comrades were accompanied by a zealous priest, Father Luis Sotelo, who served officially as their translator and unofficially as an apparently relentless proselytizer. Hasekura was baptized when they reached Spain, where he met King Philip III. Continuing on to Rome, where Father Sotelo hoped to be named Bishop of Japan, the group was granted an audience with the Pope, Paul V (November 1615). However, while they had been in transit, Ieyasu promulgated decrees ordering the ruthless and bloody suppression of Christianity in Japan. Word had by then filtered back to Rome and Hasekura's embassy was a failure. In 1620, Hasekura returned to a Japan where his newfound Christianity was no longer acceptable. Competing versions of the remainder of his life hold that he renounced Christianity, which he'd only adopted as a diplomatic ploy; that he renounced it publicly but remained faithful in private; or even that he refused to renounce it and was executed. Father Sotelo ignored Ieyasu's express commands and snuck back into Japan to evangelize. He was captured and was executed on August 25, 1624.

Although Shusaku Endo does have Hasekura meet a martyr's end, at the core of the book is the samurai's struggle against Christianity itself. The first hurdle he has to overcome is the sense in which converting would represent some kind of repudiation of the place and the people from which he came. Endo's Hasekura is very much tied to his family's marshland home in Kurokawa, where he has always worked in the fields with the peasants. He has been promised that certain lands will be restored to the family estate if his mission to Europe is successful. His background exerts a strong pull:
To become a Christian was to betray the marshland. The marshland was not made up merely of those who lived there now. The ancestors and relatives of all the living silently kept watch over the marshland. So long as the Hasekura house continued, the samurai's deceased father and grandfather would be a part of the marshland. Those dead souls would not permit him to become a Christian.
On the other hand, he has been ordered to do whatever is necessary to the success of the embassy:
"In the land of the foreigners," Lord Shiraishi added abruptly, "the ways of life will probably be different from those here in Japan. You must not cling to Japanese customs if they stand in the way of your mission. If that which is white in Japan is black in the foreign lands, consider it black. Even if you remain unconvinced in your heart, you must wear a look of acquiescence on your face."
Adding to his confusion is the obviously imperfect nature of Velasco, who can not disguise his personal ambitions and the way in which converting Hasekura would advance them. Velasco seems less concerned with Hasekura's soul than with turning him into a trophy for presentation in Rome.

While the group is in Mexico, the samurai is introduced to a different kind of Christian, a fellow Japanese who had been converted and joined the priesthood, but has run away to live with and minister to the benighted natives:
"[T]he padres who came to this country later on have forgotten the many sufferings of the Indian people.... No, they haven't forgotten. They pretend that nothing ever happened. They feign ignorance, and in seemingly sincere tones preach God's mercy and God's love. That's what disgusted me. Only words of beauty come from the lips of the padres in this country. They never soil their hands in the mire."

"Is that why you abandoned Christianity?"

"No, no!" The renegade monk glanced behind him. Several Indians were standing in front of the hut to the rear, staring at the Japanese.

"No matter what the padres might say, I believe in my own Jesus. My Jesus is not to be found in the palatial cathedrals. He lives among these miserable Indians. ... That is what I believe."
This simpler, more humble, faith is more attractive than Velasco's arrogance. However, when the group is in Rome, and Velasco has to debate the Jesuits on the future of, and potential for, Christianity in Japan, his opponent, Father Valente, calls into question whether the Japanese are culturally capable of embracing the faith:
"The Japanese basically lack a sensitivity to anything that is absolute, to anything that transcends the human level, to the existence of anything beyond the realm of Nature: what we should call the supernatural. I finally realized that after thirty years there as a missionary. It was a simple matter to teach them that this life is transitory. They have always been sensitive to that aspect of life. The frightening thing is that the Japanese also have a capacity to accept and even relish the evanescence of life. This capacity is so profound that they actually revel in that knowledge, and have written many verses inspired by that emotion. Yet the Japanese make no attempt to leap beyond it. They abhor the idea of making clear distinctions between man and God. To them, even if there should be something greater than man, it is something which man himself can one day become. Their Buddha, for instance, is a being which man can become once he abandons his illusions. Even Nature, which for us is something totally detached from man, to them is an entity which envelops mankind. We...we failed in our attempts to rectify these attitudes of theirs."
Finally though, the greatest barrier comes when he has to reconcile himself with the strangeness of the Catholic belief in Christ and His divinity:
As the samurai sat in the shadow of the mast, he realized he had unintentionally brought the rosary with him. The row of beads was made from seeds, and a crucifix dangled from one end of the string. The naked figure of an emaciated man had been carved on the crucifix. ?The samurai gazed at this man, whose arms were outstretched, and whose head drooped lifelessly. He could not understand why Velasco and all the other foreigners called such a man "Lord". To the samurai, only His Lordship could be called "Lord", but His Lordship was not a wretched, emasculated figure like this. If the Christians really worshiped this emaciated man, then their religion seemed an incredibly bizarre sort of heresy.
He discusses his skepticism with the former monk when they pass back through Mexico on their return journey:
"We had to become Christians ourselves." The samurai stared at the ground in embarrassment. "We weren't sincere about it, but..."

"You still don't believe in it?"

"No. We did it for the sake of our mission. And what about you? Do you actually believe in that man called Jesus?"

"Yes, I do. I told you that before. But the Jesus I believe in is not the one preached by the Church or the padres. I cannot ally myself with the padres who invoke the name of the Lord when they burn the altars of the Indians, and drive them from their villages, claiming that they do it in order to spread the Lord's word."

"How can you revere such a miserable, wretched fellow? How can you worship someone so ugly and emaciated? I can't understand it..."

For the first time the samurai asked the question in earnest. Nishi gazed up at the renegade monk from a crouched position, waiting to hear his reply. From the swamp they could hear the strange voices of women doing their washing.

"In the old days," the man nodded, "I had the same doubts. But I can believe in Him now because the life He lived in this world was more wretched than any other man's. Because he was ugly and emaciated. He knew all there was to know about the sorrows of the world. He could not close His eyes to the grief and agony of mankind. That is what made Him emaciated and ugly. Had He lived an exalted and powerful life beyond our grasp, I would not feel like this about Him."
Back in a Japan which no longer tolerates Christians, finding himself under a cloud of suspicion, Hasekura writes out a recantation at his Lord's request:
As he wrote, the samurai thought of that ugly, emaciated man hanging on his cross. That man they had been forced to look at every day and every night in each and every village, in each and every monastery they visited on their long journey. He had never believed in that man. He had never had any desire to worship that man. Yet all the unpleasantness he was being subjected to now was on account of that man. That man was trying to alter the samurai's destiny.
And when the recantation has no effect, and he hears that Velasco has returned and been captured, the samurai ponders his own fate:
"I crossed two great oceans and went all the way to Espana to meet a king. But I never met a king. All I ever saw was that man."

It occurred to the samurai that in foreign lands that man was called "Lord", but he had never been able to understand why. All he knew was that destiny had brought him together not with any king of this world, but only with a man who was much like the vagabonds who sometimes came begging in the marshland. ...
It comes as no surprise to read that Endo's working title for the novel was "A Man Who Met a King" nor that: "I was the first Japanese tio study abroad after the war, the first to travel to Europe. The thirty-five-day ocean voyage was absolutely agonizing." Other links to the life of Hasekura, not least that the Japan in which Endo lived and wrrote was only about 1% Christian, serve to make this a very personal novel. Yet, because of the nature of their respective lives and the message that reconciled them to that wretched man, a truly universal one. Though simple enough in structure it is moving and profound, a reminder, via the perspective of another culture, of just how strange is the Christian worship of a God who suffered and died.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Asian Literature
Shusaku Endo Links:

    -Endo, Shusaku 1923 - 1996
    -ESSAY: Japan's novelist Endo wrote of faith, endured (HARRY JAMES CARGAS, October 25, 1996, National Catholic Reporter
    -ESSAY: Endo Shusaku (David Lurie, April 3, 2000, Manichi Daily News)
    -ESSAY: The Christology of Shusaku Endo (Fumitaka Matsuoka, July 1982, Theology Today)
    -ESSAY: Shusaku Endo's enduring legacy (George Bull)
    -SERMON: Shusaku Endo
    -ESSAY: Japan's Faithful Judas: Shusaku Endo's struggle to give his faith a Japanese soul. (Philip Yancey, BOOKS AND CULTURE)
    -REVIEW: of Five by Endo (Janice P. Nimura, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Silence by Shusaku Endo (David Kopp)

Book-related and General Links:


i feel the same as sarah.

- florbella

- Nov-14-2006, 00:54


i wish you would add the page numbers to the quotes

- sarah

- Feb-23-2006, 14:25